Bog Bodies – Kingship and Sacrifice

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Taken from Scéal na Móna, Vol. 13, no. 44, November 2002, p25.

At the end of the last Ice Age melt water from retreating ice sheets left the Central Plain of Ireland strewn with shallow lakes that in time developed into large expanses of raised bog. Following the removal of most of the countries woodlands in the seventeenth century, peat from the bogs became an important source of fuel and over the next few centuries, peat cutters encountered many archaeological objects lost in the bogs or deposited deliberately in former times. Bog finds have included weapons, personal ornaments, large lumps of butter and occasionally human remains.

Bog bodies are rare survivals of human remains from earlier times and while many survive merely as skeletons, the preservative properties of bogs means that on exceptional occasions the bodies are in spectacular condition with hair, skin, hands, internal organs and other soft tissue preserved. Such a discovery makes it literally possible to come face-to-face with a person who lived millennia ago and to see what they looked like how they styled their hair and wore their clothing. It is also possible to find out what they ate, what diseases they may have suffered in life and the manner of their deaths.

The remains of up to one hundred men, women and children, dating to all periods, have been found in Irish bogs representing accidental deaths as well as formal interment and more casual disposal. Finds of Iron Age date are of a rather more sinister nature and what characterises them and sets them apart from other bog bodies is the fact that they represent ritual killings. Similar finds elsewhere demonstrate that the Irish Iron Age finds form part of a broader North Western European cultural tradition, with well-known examples from Tollund, Denmark, Lindow Moss, England and Yde, Holland.

Despite the numbers of bog bodies found in Ireland the discovery of well preserved ancient remains is a relatively rare occurrence so it was with considerable surprise that the National Museum learned in the spring and early summer of 2003 of two remarkable new discoveries. In the debris of a peat-screening machine at the Bord na Móna peat extraction works in Ballivor, Co. Meath an employee, Mick Burke, discovered the preserved body of a young man. Investigation indicated that it had lain originally in a deep bog at Clonycavan on the Meath county border with Westmeath. Although damaged from the waist down due to the action of a peat-harvesting machine, the internal organs were preserved partially. The head was intact with a clearly distinguishable face and a very distinctive hairstyle. On the back of the head the hair was cut to about 2.5cm long with the rest of the hair, which was about 20cm long, gathered into a bundle on the top of his head. Later analysis revealed that the hair had been held in place by the application of a sort of hair jell made from resin imported from France or Spain. Clonycavan man was of slight build and diminutive stature and was estimated to be no more than about 5 foot 9 inches (1.76m) tall.

By contrast a second body found a few months later by a local man. Kevin Barry, at Oldcroghan, Co. Offaly, was a veritable giant estimated at about 6 feet 3 1/2 inches (1.91m) tall and powerfully built. Uncovered during the digging of a bog drain, the remains consist of a severed torso that had been decapitated; however the surviving part of the body was in remarkable condition with superbly preserved hands and internal organs still intact. On the right aim was a plaited leather armband with metal mounts decorated in Celtic style.

The National Museum enlisted the expertise of an international team of specialists who undertook detailed analysis of both bodies. A wide variety of analyses was carried out including CT and MRI scanning, palaeodietary analysis, fingerprinting, histological analysis, pathological assessment, facial reconstruction, and so on.

Carbon fourteen dating indicated that Clonycavan man lived during the period 392-201BC while Oldcroghan man produced a date range of 362­ 175BC. The presence of expensive imported resin in the hair of Clonycavan Man indicated that he was a high status person and this also seemed to be the case with Oldcroghan Man who had carefully manicured fingernails and an absence of wear to his hands indicative of a person who did not engage in heavy manual work.

Scientific analysis of the chemical constituents of hair and fingernails provided information on the diets of the two men in the months preceding their deaths. Clonycavan Man had a plant­based diet for four months prior to his death with a meat-based diet for the preceding eight months of the year. This suggests that he may have died during the autumn before the onset of a meat-rich winter diet. By contrast Oldcroghan Man may have died in the winter or early spring as he ate a diet with a substantial meat component during the four months prior to his death. Clonycavan Man was killed by a series of blows to his head and chest, from a heavy, edged weapon, probably an axe. He also suffered a 40cm long cut to his abdomen suggesting disembowelment. A stab wound to his chest killed Oldcroghan Man; however a defence-wound on one arm indicates that he tried to fend off the fatal assault. The deceased was then decapitated, had his nipples cut and his thorax severed from his abdomen. Withies tied through cuts made in the upper arms may have been employed to fasten down the body to the bottom of a bog pool. Withies are ropes made of twisted twigs and their association has been noted in connection with some other Iron Age bog bodies such as Gallagh Man from Co. Galway who appears to have been strangled using a garrotte made of withies. The presence of withies may have had a ritual significance concerning which a possible clue may be found in the mythological story Tain Bó Cuailnge. The ancient tale relates how Cuchulainn places a withy wreath over a standing stone on the Ulster border that invokes a powerful taboo preventing passage of the invading Connacht army and which obliges Maeve and her forces to cut a new route through a wood. This protective aspect of withies may have derived from their use to make spancels to prevent animals being run off in cattle raids.

It was noted that both Oldcroghan Man and Clonycavan Man were located on significant boundaries, which prompted an important new line of research. The indications are that many modern boundaries have a remarkable antiquity, and that barony boundaries in particular appear in many instances to coincide with ancient tribal boundaries. Four other dated Irish finds of Iron Age bog bodies were found to be located on significant boundaries with up to forty probable Iron Age bog bodies in total that appear to fit the same pattern. Some of the finds consisted only of body parts such as decapitated heads and severed limbs, suggesting that some bodies, such as that of Oldcroghan man, were dismembered for interment at a number of different places along tribal boundaries.

The deposition of bodies along boundaries might be interpreted as having a protective function and while this may have been partly the case, a range of other Iron Age material uncovered along boundaries suggests that one is dealing primarily with sovereignty rituals associated with sacral kingship and kingly inauguration. In the pagan era, as part of the king's sacred marriage to the territorial earth goddess, it would appear that objects associated with inauguration rituals were buried on tribal boundaries as a statement and definition of the king's sovereignty. The presence of items of harness, yokes and parts of wheeled vehicles, suggest that candidates for kingship rode in procession to the place of inauguration.

Cauldrons and drinking vessels were the objects associated with a feast that was an integral part of the ceremony while horned headdress; collars, torcs, armlets, pins and fibulae provide evidence of the nature of kingly regalia. The votive deposition of bog butter, quern stones, plough parts and in one instance a sickle are all reminders that a central function of the marriage of the king to the earth goddess was to ensure the fertility of the land and well-being of the people who were dependant for survival on reliable yields of corn, milk and milk products. These finds may also give an important context to the final meal of Oldcroghan Man that consisted of cereals and buttermilk.

What few references we have to human sacrifice in early Irish written sources link the practice to the god Crom Dubh who is associated with Lughnasa, the Celtic harvest festival. This association may provide a religious context for the killings that, at a practical level, may represent the execution of royal hostages to ensure the compliance of subordinate lords or the elimination of rivals for kingship. That Oldcroghan man may have been a failed candidate for kingship, or perhaps even a deposed king, is implied by the fact that his nipples were cut thus rendering him ineligible for kingship. This is because the suckling of a king's nipples was an important gesture of submission by subordinates, and the stylised representation of breasts and nipples on the terminals of gold gorgets indicates that this was a custom that extended as far back as the Late Bronze Age at least. The rich field of research prompted by the discovery of Oldcroghan Man and Clonycavan Man is continuing and many further important discoveries may lie in store.

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